Editor's note: The Harbert College of Business is committed to developing a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem for students, faculty, industry, and alumni that will fuel new venture creation. The story that follows is one of eight in a series entitled, "Inspired Entrepreneurship." Showcasing the experience and expertise of Harbert alums who have created successful business enterprises of their own will help equip our students for entrepreneurial success.
Growing up in South Alabama, my grandfather and family owned 2,000 acres of hunting land. From as far back as I can remember, I would join them on hunting and fishing trips where they would entertain customers in the business. The entire outdoor hospitality experience – the travel, the cooking, the bird dogs – was engrained in me from the very beginning.”
John Thames, Founder and Publisher of Covey Rise magazine and Bourbon+, tells his story of how a deep-seated passion for the outdoors fueled his transformation from a part-time magazine hobbyist to an international publisher and brand strategist in the emerging wildlife lifestyle marketplace.
“Growing up in South Alabama, my grandfather and family owned and operated a utility pole business. He also owned 2,000 acres of hunting land,” said Thames, who received his degree in Business Administration from Auburn’s College of Business in 1996. “From as far back as I can remember, I would join them on hunting and fishing trips where they would entertain customers in the business. The entire outdoor hospitality experience – the travel, the cooking, the bird dogs – was engrained in me from the very beginning. I was raised in the world of hunting and fishing on that land, and I loved it.”
The Harbert College of Business sat down with John as part of its Harbert Entrepreneur Spotlight initiative to hear how his early passion for the outdoors grew into an unexpected entrepreneurial success.
As an outdoors and hunting enthusiast, John Thames was
HCOB: Your early career had nothing whatsoever to do with publishing, right? Can you talk a little bit about the first phase of your professional life?
Thames: No, not at all. Upon graduation I went to work for Russell Lands, a large real estate development company on Lake Martin in Alexander City, Alabama. I was drawn to work for Russell because they managed close to thirty thousand acres of timberland on the shores of Lake Martin. After ten years there, I started my own construction business, building houses and lodges, and eventually started a second business building docks for houses sitting lakeside. I suppose you could say that being an entrepreneur focused on the outdoors and wildlife environments was at least in the same general arena as my current publishing businesses. But no, I had no experience or even any expectation that I would go into the magazine publishing business.
HCOB: So, how did you come to start Covey Rise?
Thames: As an outdoors and hunting enthusiast, I was aware of a small publication, a fish wrapper newsletter, really called Covey Rise. It was distributed to a small number of subscribers throughout the United States. I thought it might be fun to try to make this lifestyle a full-time job of mine, and to see if I could help represent the upland sport I had grown to love. I had a passion for the sport – the entire experience, the lifestyle, really – and wanted others to share that joy, not only in Alabama and the South, but around the world as well. So, I bought the publication, the brand name, and set out trying to find out about what it takes to turn that into something more vivid, more engaging, more substantial.
HCOB: This was in 2012, right? As I recall, the print magazine marketplace wasn’t exactly booming then. In fact, high-quality, four-color glossy magazines were going under, or going online-only at that time. What made you think you could succeed in a market where established name brands were failing?
John Thames and his team travel year-round to places all over
Thames: Well, I will tell you this, print is not dead. There will always be a place for quality products that have value to the consumer. What died was just that: publications that were not creating engaging experiences, and that were not producing valuable content. But It certainly wasn’t publishing experience that made me think I could succeed in this business. I had absolutely zero experience in the publishing world. But what I did have was a passion, and a willingness to try.
HCOB: What were your first steps, did you begin by conducting formal market research or developing a detailed business plan?
Thames: Research, yes. A business plan, no. You have to keep in mind that I wasn’t approaching this with the intention of building a publishing empire – it was a hobby I was interested in pursuing. If it became a little more than that, fine, but in no way, shape or form did I ever imagine what that hobby would become.
HCOB: You say you started with research – what was your process?
Thames: I started looking for experts in the magazine publishing world who might advise me, and found one of the best, Dr. Samir Husni – “Mr. Magazine” – founder and director of Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. A lot of people I talked to encouraged me to contact him, so I took a chance and simply gave him a call and left a message. After I hung up, I said to myself “There's no way in the world he calls me back, he works with everybody all over the globe, all the big names, the top consultants. Much to my surprise, he called me back within an hour and asked me if I could be in his office two days later. Of course, I went, thinking “Either this will be a very short meeting or something good.” It turned out to be life changing.
I will tell you this, print is not dead. There will always be a place for quality products that have value to the consumer. What died was just that: publications that were not creating engaging experiences, and that were not producing valuable content."
HCOB: Why? What did he tell you that made such a difference?
Thames: He was very direct. He said, “Okay, you knocked on my front door and you hand me the magazine. Talk to me as if you were the magazine. What are you saying to me? Who are you? So, I began telling him about me, the magazine, and what all he would experience while flipping through the pages—from the in-depth stories to the breathtaking pictures, to the quality of the paper he would feel while holding the magazine in his hands. He did not say a word, he just listened. When I was done, he looked around the room and pointed to all these magazine covers and pictures of famous publishers he had framed on the walls—these are all the big names, some of the most successful magazines and publishers in the world—and he said, “I asked every one of these people I've worked with the exact same questions that I just asked you, and nobody ever answered those questions as well as you just did. You spoke to me, you have a passion, you're deeply entrenched in this and you understand what you want your readers to get out of this publication.” He then proceeded to guide me through the whole printing and publishing process and how things work in the business. As I look back on it, that was the best phone call I ever could have made.
HCOB: What did you do next? You learned the nuts and bolts of the production side of the business, what about the creative side – the writing, the photography?
Thames: To begin with, I had a very clear sense of what I wanted the magazine to look like – the design – and I had an equally clear sense of what I wanted the stories to be about. I wanted this to be a very high-end coffee table book, something you keep and didn’t throw away after you’ve read it. So, I began researching the best writers and photographers from the premier hunting, fishing, outdoor lifestyle and travel magazines in the world. I contacted them, laid out my vision, and asked if they would like to be contributors. The vast majority jumped at the chance to have their work featured at the high end of the publishing spectrum, and we were off and running.
And I also enlisted the help of a fellow alum from Auburn, Kelly Waldrop, who ran his own real estate marketing and advertising business. He was instrumental in getting the publication off the ground, helping manage the advertising, printing, etc. One thing we did was contact advertisers directly, we didn’t go though media buyers. The quality of the publication and our focus on full-page, impactful ads really appealed to the top of the line vendors in the industry.
John Thames' advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: "Don't be afraid
HCOB: So, now you have designers, writers, photographers, printers and a few initial advertisers, how did you get this off the ground and into the hands of potential subscribers?
Thames: Hand to mouth, really. I started calling up lodges all around the country, offering to send them copies of our inaugural issue for free, and asking them to display them to their customers. I also attended the biggest trade show in the industry, called Dallas Safari Club, walking around the show floor handing out copies to vendors, facilities managers, anybody who might get my publication into the hands of birding, hunting and other outdoors enthusiasts.
HCOB: Fast forward to today, what does the business look like now?
Thames: It’s really grown, particularly in the past three years. We travel year-round to places all over the world. From New Zealand to South Africa to England depending on the season – Covey Rise is everywhere. And we recently launched a second publication, Bourbon+, which tells stories from the heart of bourbon—the farmers who grow the grain, the distillers who labor over the process, the mixologists – and the people who raise their glasses to celebrate it all.
We now design magazines for other people as well. We have been doing book design for major brands such as Orvis, and we recently published a cookbook of our own called Game: The Field to Table Cookbook. We've got an extensive new branding business, and we're creating branding for lodges, doing logo designs, and a whole range of consulting services for the hunting, fishing and wildlife adventure business worldwide. It's branched out into a huge business that I never would have thought possible.
HCOB: And you’ve recently re-engaged with a number of initiatives at Auburn, right?
Thames: Yes, that’s correct. I’ve been collaborating with Professor Michael Kinkaid on a few of his initiatives, and he’s been doing a little consulting for us, too. I’ve also signed up to participate in the recently announced Wildlife Enterprise Management degree program at Auburn. And we’ve also just featured Raymond Harbert’s property, Sedgefields, in the October-November 19 issue of Covey Rise. I look forward to expanding my engagement with Auburn and the Harbert College of Business.
HCOB: One final question, what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs? What would you have done differently, if you could?
Thames: What would I have done differently? I would have asked more questions up front, done even more research than I initially did. And I probably would have pulled together a formal business plan. That said, I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t know what I didn’t know, or I might not have done it!
As for what advice I would give budding entrepreneurs, I would say first and foremost – do your research. Make sure you know your product, what makes it different, and who your target audience is – you can’t know too much in that respect. And bring your passion to the table, rely on it. It might be the only thing that will turn a good try into a successful, viable business.
Finally, don’t be afraid to take the leap. There’s no optimal time to do it – you simply need to rely on your instinct, your passion and the research you’ve done and then just take the plunge. If my experience is any indication, you’ll be glad you did.